Byron stopped. A mound of jagged stone blocked the passage almost to the ceiling. He stood panting, shaking, gaping into the darkness. It was quiet behind him. He scrabbled up the pile, shoving his pack ahead of him into the gap at the top.
“Too… tight,” he said as he squirmed through.
He twisted and got stuck.
His arm wedged beneath him, Byron grunted and strained, groping in the darkness behind him. A sharp edge dug into his back. He caught hold of a stone and pushed. The stone broke and Byron’s cheek struck the rocks beneath him.
He saw a flash of light and the pain came. Blood oozed down into his ear. Byron clenched his teeth to muffle an angry shout. His eyes filled with tears and he flailed with all his might. The stones beneath him shifted. He pitched forward and fell. There was a loud rip. Byron’s cape caught on the stone, snapping tight. His wrist was pinned beneath him and he dangled there, halfway down the rubble pile, choked by the clasp of his cape.
Byron rolled to shift his weight. His cape held him fast. It was torn in half from hem to hood. The free half flopped down over his face. When he reached to loose the clasp, he twisted his pinned wrist. When he shifted his weight off his wrist, he strangled himself with his cape. When he reached to push the torn strip from his face he was choked and twisted both at once.
Byron wriggled and squirmed and grunted. Then he tugged and kicked and growled. He stifled another shout. Flailing and lunging, Byron pitched forward, turning and reaching. He found a stone with his hoof and rested his weight there. The cape relaxed its chokehold and he freed his wrist. He sighed and smiled in the darkness. Then the stone gave way and his legs came out from under him.
He landed on his side stuck between two large rocks, with one arm pinned beneath him and his wind knocked out. His torn cape flopped down over his head again. As he lay there, gulping for air, Byron heard the sound of his punctured water skin draining away somewhere out of reach in the darkness. As the last cough escaped the tear in the water skin, Byron gasped a breath of air and started to cry. He lay there for a long time and didn’t bother to push the torn cape from his eyes.
In the quiet he slept and dreamed.
Hoofbeats echoed in the tunnel. A horse was neighing. A fire burned on the high peak of a faraway mountain. Above the fire burned the star. There were drums and pipes and voices. The horse’s neigh came again, more hoofbeats in the tunnel. Byron shook his head and opened his eyes. It was quiet and dark beneath his cape. He struggled to sit up. The image of the flame dancing on the mountain remained when he opened his eyes.
“A torch,” Byron said. He shook his head. “Hello, stupid.”
He pulled himself free of his bind between the stones and rummaged through his pack. In a few moments he was sparking the tinder. Shadows leaped. The passage came alight. Byron gasped and dropped the torch. The young flame flickered and nearly died, but he snatched it up in time and held it out. There was a wolf on the floor of the tunnel, back at the foot of the rubble pile.
It was huge and torn and dead and stretched across a gap in the rubble where Byron could have walked through standing. Drops of blood led from the wolf right between Byron’s hooves and into the shadows of the tunnel ahead. He followed them with his eyes. No tracks were visible on the stone floor. Byron glanced back at the wolf and set off again.
He crept along. The tunnels were jagged and rough and so low in places he had to duck. Dark passages branched away to the left and right. Byron pressed on, ever downward, along a steep, sandy decline.
It was very quiet. At a two-way fork in the tunnel, Byron waved the torch down each of the passages and chose the one to the right. He frowned and squinted into the gloom. Around a sharp bend he came face to face with two enormous wolves.
The wolves looked at Byron. Byron looked at the wolves. A moment passed. Byron turned and ran as fast as he could. At the fork he paused. The way he’d come was too steep. Byron heard the growling of the wolves, their paws upon the stone. He turned to the left-hand tunnel and fled.
Left and right he turned, again and again. Passage after passage opened into the light of Byron’s torch. He stopped and crawled under a low ceiling, then stood and pitched forward as the ground dipped beneath him. He dropped his torch and the weight of his pack shifted, dragging him down. He sprang to his hooves but the torn cape caught him. The eyes of the lead wolf flashed in the torchlight as it waddled under the low tunnel ceiling. Byron yanked his cape free of his hoof, snatched up his torch and bolted.
Every turn, every tunnel led downward. Byron ran too fast, always near to stumbling on the steepness. The wolves drew near, their panting, their whines, their padding feet. Byron looked back and saw them, blazing eyes and wagging tongues in the torchlight. He started crying, running, looking back.
“Dadda!” he cried and didn’t see the low ceiling.
All the weight of the mountain met the crown of Byron’s head. He screamed and dropped his torch, gripping his skull with both hands. Byron reeled and staggered into the darkness before him. The ground vanished and he fell.
He struck the water flat on his belly and face, swallowing a great gulp. It was warm and sweet and he coughed and gasped for breath. Byron tried to swim, but his strength was gone. Something sharp and hard took hold of his arm, pulling him. Byron let his face sag into the water and knew no more.
* * *
Voices were screaming. One rose clear above them.
Byron ran. Dadda! he cried and his words choked him. Mamma!
Away in the trees was a satyr, a little older than himself, barging through the undergrowth, screaming as a great dark shape closed in from behind. Byron ran and ran and stepped into a rut in the ground. His whole body jerked and he woke.
“Garvin?” he said and his voice mingled with the sound of dripping water. It was dark and when the echo of his voice faded, it was quiet. The water dripped again. The pain in Byron’s head was terrible. He took a breath and sat up.
A huge welt had risen with an oozing gash in the middle of it. Byron winced and held his head. He touched the wound and stabs of pain shot down into his eyes. There was pain in his wrist also. The skin wasn’t broken, but the bones hurt when he made a fist. Byron sighed a deep, thorough sigh. He clutched his wrist and peered into the darkness.
His cape was turned on his body so the hood was sideways.
“Seems dry enough,” he said, righting it with his good hand. “How long’ve I been here?”
Byron stood and staggered a few steps. He dropped to a seat and his head throbbed. The ground felt like sun-baked stone. His hand brushed against his rucksack; it was open and empty. Feeling around, he located his second torch.
A long slow search led him to the edge of the pool where he found the tinderbox perched on the brink of falling in. Byron bumped it with the side of his hand. He realized what it was and snatched at it in the dark, catching it just before it hit the water. He rolled on his back and waited for the pain in his head to die away. It throbbed so hard he could hear it.
“It’s like an oven in here,” he said as he knocked the flints together. “Guess that’s lucky.”
In the light of the sparks the tinderbox and the open rucksack came and went from sight. A small flame sprang up in the well-dried tinder. Byron blew on it. Soon the torch was blazing. Byron collected his things and shouldered his pack. Then he noticed the creature.
It had the body of a lizard only much, much larger. The torso and head were like a man with dark red skin and it had a thick mane on its head and back. It lay still on the floor of the cave, dead. Byron approached it and found a bloodied spear in its grip. Then he saw the entrance to another tunnel and two dead wolves lying there. Byron turned and waved the torch around the chamber. As he did he heard a low growl and found another wolf lurking in the shadows, staring at him.
Blood stained its face and jowls. It labored to its feet and stood with its hackles bristling. The bloodied lips drew back from long, red fangs. The wolf crouched and snarled at Byron. Its eyes were wild and glowed in the light of the torch. Byron looked close at those eyes and saw that one of them was blue.
It was the biggest wolf he’d ever seen. The deep growl rumbled in its throat. Byron stepped back. Then he turned and ran for the tunnel.
He squinted through the pain in his head, forcing himself onward. He turned and turned again, hoping to shake off pursuit. He thought of the blood on the face of the wolf and hoped the brute was too injured to follow. Byron stopped to catch his breath and listen. When the throbbing in his head calmed down and the pounding of his heart left his ears, all was silent. He gaped into the shadows and found a faint glow coming from the walls of the tunnel.
Thick moss grew in a clump at the curve between the wall and ceiling. It was orange and yellow and looked like the coals of a campfire. Byron touched it and it spat a stream of sparks in his face. He cried out and fell back, burying his face in his hands. He stumbled and bumped his welt against the stone. Byron hollered again and fell to the ground. The torch landed on its top and went out.
Sparks showered down on him from the flaring moss. Byron clenched his teeth and growled and kicked his hooves, fighting back the tears. When the pain subsided he uncovered his face and found he could see by the light of the firemoss. Byron stood and leaned against the wall.
His torch lay smoking on the ground. In the tunnel ahead were more patches of moss growing on the walls. The passage was full of orange light. Byron sighed and went on, leaving the torch behind him.
Still the tunnels led downward. Byron kept to those best lit by the moss. The walls were warm to touch. He came to a ledge that circled and looked down on the floor of a huge chamber. It was lit by masses of firemoss high up on the ceiling. The floor was like a vast cooking fire of glowing mosses and mushrooms and low-growing shrubs of brilliant red and yellow and orange.
Sparks and flames shot up everywhere. Standing in the flames with long rakes and hoes were dozens of lizard creatures. They marched about in the fire, tending the glowing crops.
In the middle of it all was a huge bank of coals. The air above it trembled with heat. Lizard creatures were busy trying to keep open flames from sprouting among the embers. Large entrances to other caverns opened in the walls of the chamber, through which dozens more of the creatures came and went. Byron crept along to the first tunnel he came to and went in.
It sloped downward and at the bottom there was a junction of three tunnels. The one to the right and the one straight ahead were well lit with firemoss. The left-hand tunnel had a locked gate across it. Byron started to go straight and saw a pair of lizard creatures headed toward him.
One of them stopped and pointed. At the same moment another pair approached from the right. Byron turned to run away up the passage he’d come down, but there were shadows approaching from above. The first four creatures cried in alarm and ran toward him with incredible speed. From the upward tunnel came a cry of response and the sounds of running feet. Byron flung himself at the gate and started wriggling through.
He slipped out of his pack and let it drop. His cape caught in the bars and the first pair of creatures to reach the chamber lunged at him. The bars were tight and scraped Byron’s back and chest as he wrenched himself through. He stepped back and straightened his torn cape.
One of the creatures hissed and reached for Byron through the bars. The other picked up his pack and dumped it out. The second pair arrived. Byron turned to go on and still another creature arrived from the upward tunnel with a ring of jangling keys. Byron heard the slides of the lock fall and he broke into a run.
With a creak, the gate flew open and the lizard creatures clamored through. Byron ran on and came to a long patch of white-orange firemoss covering the floor, a long walk of fire, shimmering with heat. Here and there a small spray of sparks shot up and wisps of thick smoke streaked the air, but there were patches of open ground, like islands, scattered all through.
Byron set out hopping from one open patch to the next. Soon he found himself too far from the nearest open spot to reach it without touching moss. He stood for a moment, considering. The lizard creatures appeared and dashed right out onto the moss. The tunnel came alive with streams of bursting sparks. The dark forms of the creatures appeared amid the showering spray and came toward him fast. Byron turned and ran for it.
Moss clusters sprayed him with burning sparks and he cried out as he ran. The fur on his legs and fetlocks smouldered and smoked. He fell into a thick bunch of the stuff and landed on his palms. He was lost in the glowing rain and could not see ahead of him. He got up and ran on, wincing and crying out, waving his arms before him.
When his hooves struck stone, Byron kept running, patting out the little fires in his fur and hair. His palms and chest were blistered and his face was hot. He looked back to locate the creatures and found his cape was on fire. He popped the clasp and let it drop. The lizard creatures emerged from the firemoss and charged after him.
They closed the gap fast and Byron could hear them drawing near. A large tunnel mouth opened in front of him. He ran through without slowing and glanced backward to see the creatures, black against light of the raging firemoss. They did not advance, but stood there at the entrance of the tunnel, looking in.
Byron stopped. The creatures hissed at him and waved their spears. He frowned and looked forward into the dim light. Small patches of red firemoss lit the tunnel until it disappeared around a bend. The lizard creatures didn’t follow. Byron turned and hurried on.
He walked a long time. The air was hot and the rocks were painful to touch. He came to a kind of balcony that looked down into a vast chamber. Huge swatches of firemoss lit the ground. The high roof was lost in shadow. Great glowing mushrooms sprouted up from the floor. They looked like metal heated to red. A stair wound down from the balcony, along the cavern wall to the ground hundreds of feet below.
In the middle of the chamber, among the mushrooms, Byron came to an open place where the ground was black and charred. He kicked something in the deep ashes.
It was a rod of some sort, as long as Byron was tall. It looked like a club, wider and rounded at one end, narrow and almost pointed at the other. The whole thing was caked smooth with black soot, glazed and hardened as if by fire. It was light in Byron’s hands. He gripped it at the narrow end and held it like a weapon. Then, out of the corner of his eye, Byron saw something move.
A black dot raced across the red light of the mushrooms. Whatever it was it was quick; it stopped for a moment, then headed straight for Byron. Byron tensed. The thing disappeared into the shadows but he could hear feet padding through the ashes at a run. Byron crouched and held the club-thing before him. When the creature appeared, Byron stood and smiled. He let his shoulders sag and almost laughed out loud.
It was smaller than Byron, stocky and running on two legs. It had rough, bumpy skin and horns at the knees and elbows. Its tall conical head was studded with small spines and it had huge, shining black eyes. Byron was so amused he didn’t mind the fact that the creature kept coming straight for him.
With astonishing strength, the little brute hit Byron full on and knocked him to the ground. Then it circled around and came again. Byron swung out with the stout end of the club. The blow fell squarely on the creature’s tall head but the monster did not stop. It fell upon Byron and held him in an unbreakable grip.
It clung to Byron with all four limbs, taking his left horn in its teeth. Byron screamed so loud it hurt his throat as little teeth sank into the skin around his horn and tore it loose from his skull. Byron screamed and screamed and screamed but could not get free. The monster clutched him with its arms and tore him with its teeth and started kicking him with its feet.
Then it shrieked and twisted and let go.
There was a savage growl. Byron fell to the ground. He looked up to see the wolf with one blue eye shaking the creature in its mouth. The little brute shrieked again as the wolf tossed it aside. It landed on its feet and ran off squealing into the darkness. The wolf took a step to follow it, then turned to look at Byron. Its fur was still bloody and it limped, but the wolf licked its fangs and set off after the goblin. Byron watched the huge shape lope away into the shadows.
All was quiet.
Byron lay curled in a ball among the ashes, covering the wound where the horn had been. A small, tender root stuck out of it. It throbbed with pain and there was a lot of blood. Byron couldn’t move with all the horrible aching in his body and head. The strange club lay in the ash beside him.
A sound came from somewhere in the deep reaches of the cave. It was faint. Byron didn’t move, but he listened. It came again. He heard hoofbeats and a horse neighing. It echoed to the unseen roof of the chamber. Byron uncurled a little and listened again. The sound came louder and clearer. With all his strength, Byron came to an elbow and looked around.
His whole body throbbed. His stomach was sick, his head ached with dizziness and he could hardly see for the blood trickling into his eyes. Even so he stood up, leaning on the strange club for balance. The sound came again, louder and clearer. Byron glanced into the glowing mushrooms where the wolf and goblin had gone. The horse neighed again. Byron set off to follow, staggering a little over his first few steps.
He went out through the glowing mosses and mushrooms to a crack in the far wall of the cave. It was almost too narrow for him, but the hooves were clopping and the horse neighed somewhere deep inside. Byron turned sideways and scraped through, holding his breath. The burns on his hands and chest hurt him. He shimmied through for a short way and the crack opened to a wider passage leading upward. Byron could see nothing. The sound seemed far away. He let a wave of dizziness pass, then put his hand to the wall and pressed on.
Ever upward, the passage climbed. At times it was carved with steep, narrow stairs. At every dark intersection the neighing and hoofbeats sounded, leading the way. So it went. Byron climbed up and up into cool, moist air. At last he felt the chill of winter and the movement of a breeze across his face.
It stung the wound on his head. Byron winced, but further on he saw a faint light. The horse neighed again. Byron found his way to a ledge that looked out at the nighttime sky. He shivered in the cold, gazing into the dark vastness before him and his eyed filled with stinging tears.
Dark and bright, the sky was alive with stars. Huge among them, the one star burned clear and white above the land beyond the mountains. Byron’s heart leaped toward it. A wave of pain shot down through his head into his eyes. His vision blurred to a fog and his strength failed him.
Byron leaned on the club-like staff, holding it with both hands. As he rested his cheek on his knuckles, his eyelids sealed themselves shut. Covered in soot and sweat and blood and tears, Byron lowered himself to the cold ground and fell sleep.
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